You probably know that yoga is an ancient practice. But did you know that there are eight different aspects, or limbs, of yoga? And that what we in the western world typically think of as yoga– you know, what we do when we go to a yoga class– is actually only one of those limbs?
The sage Patanjali outlined the eight limbs of yoga as a path toward enlightenment, or bliss. Each of the eight limbs of yoga has a purpose, and each one can help you in your journey to bliss.
Yamas are rules for your behavior toward others. There are five:
- Ahimsa, or non-violence: physical, mental, and emotional non-violence toward all living things (yourself included!). Letting go of all the negativity and hurt allows your heart more space for love and kindness.
- Satya, or truthfulness: speaking the truth… and being careful not to confuse your opinions and beliefs with the truth. This forces us to carefully consider what we say and don’t say, and with that grows integrity and respect.
- Asteya, or non-stealing: of course this includes material objects, but it also includes non-tangible things as well. When we practice asteya, we are conscious to not steal time, ideas, energy, and joy, as a few examples.
- Bramacharya, or moderation: maintaining control over our physical and mental impulses allows us to attain higher levels of energy and happiness. Traditionally this was interpreted as celibacy, but can also include excess food and drink, work, sleep, or anything that can be taken in excess and throw your life out of balance.
- Aparigraha, or non-coveting: letting go of greed and possessiveness. This includes material possessions, but also beliefs that no longer serve us. By releasing our grasp on these things, we give ourselves more energy to move forward.
Niyamas are rules for your behavior toward yourself. There are also five:
- Saucha, or purity: physical, mental, and emotional. Think of it as physical and mental hygiene… keeping yourself, your mind, and your surroundings clean to create a sense of peace and order for yourelf.
- Santosha, or contentment: the underlying joy within all of us that cannot be shaken by life’s obstacles. Trusting in the big picture allows us to live with with acceptance and gratitude.
- Tapas, or self-discipline: literally translated as “generating heat,” tapas tells us to create a fire within ourselves in order to continue bettering ourselves. With effort, determination, and discipline, we are able to achieve our goals.
- Svadhyaya, or self-study: your journey to know your truest self. This is where you will find your true happiness.
- Ishvara pranidhana, or dedication to the highest: the understanding that we are all a part of a “divine matrix.” This can mean different things to different people, but no matter your personal belief, it is acceptance and trust that we are all part of something greater.
This is the physical practice of yoga, the postures. What we do when we go to a yoga class at the gym or outside in a park. Asana was meant to be a way to prepare your body to sit in meditation for extended periods of time. The movement of asana is also a way to create ease and space in the body, which leads to ease and space in the mind.
Prana is life force, or breath, and we learned from the fist limb of yoga that yama is control (rules). Put those words together to form pranayama, or breath control. By gaining mastery over our breath, we are able to rejuvenate the body and focus our awareness.
The fifth limb describes withdrawal, or mastery of the senses. We withdraw from the stimuli of the outside world in order to turn into ourselves and listen to our inner voice. This is a step to prepare the mind for meditation, but it can also be continually used throughout your day to help you filter out the noise, the negativity, and the excess that doesn’t serve you.
Once we have withdrawn from the outside stimuli by the practice of pratyahara, we are ready to practice dharana, or concentrated focus. Basically, this means withdrawing from the inner stimuli of your mind. By focusing on a single image, word, or mantra, we allow our mind to practice concentration as a step toward meditation. Like pratyhara, dharana can be utilized outside of meditation practice. You may have heard in a yoga class, “where attention goes, energy flows.” This is the concept of dharana at work… anything in your life on which you choose to focus will flourish. Career, love, friendships… the practice of dharana applies.
Dhyana is meditation, or an uninterrupted flow of concentration. Where dharana uses extended focus on an object as a tool to calm the mind, dhyana is the act of being keenly aware, without focus. The mind is quiet, and is producing little to no thoughts. When we have achieved dhyana, we are able to stay centered amidst change, challenge, and distraction.
The eighth and final limb of yoga is enlightenment. Bliss. A moment of transcending the self and realizing a connection with the Divine, and with all living things. When we achieve this self-actualization, we come to know our truest self. Our essential nature. Samadhi can be fleeting and brief, but that makes it no less powerful.